Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dilemma of a national language: Dusting an old paper

I have tried to think through the issue of national identity and linguistic identity; the need for a common official language of communication, incorporation of what is national (common to all in the nation) and creation of conditions to make a particular language national and regional linguistics revolts.

This issue of linguistic identity juxtaposed against national identity, comes particularly in the light of the recent anti-Tamil and pro-Kannada movements happening in Bangalore. In fact the protest is not so much against Tamil as it is for reawakening the Kannada nationalism. Similarly, another instance of linguistic separatism came to light in Maharashtra where people of Marathi origin, essentially speaking Marathi, are being favored by Shiv Sena. They have gone to the extent of asking for special job quota reservations for Maharashtrians. It would be too vast in scope if I were to try and analyze all such linguistic conflicts that have taken place in India since independence. But I would like to narrow it down to the following points:

“Why is the national language such an integral part of the Indian identity?”

“What is the Indian identity?”

“English- the real national language?”

“The need for learning Hindi vs. the cultural subjugation of linguistic minorities.”

To start with I would like to draw in this magnificent idea harbored by all citizens of India of being an “Indian”. It is interesting to locate where, why and how this common idea of being an Indian comes to such a wide, linguistically, geographically and ethnically divided nation. This will take us back to the question of whether India is actually even a nation in spite of being so constitutionally. I believe that the basis of any identity formation would have to be the commonalities shared by the people who consent to it and integrate that identity in themselves. In the case of a nation and a common identity of its citizens, the most obvious binding factor would be the constitution which governs all of them and is accepted by will/consent of the majority. But there are various other factors which contribute to the manufacturing of a common identity. One of which is languages. It is precisely for this reason that there is a common “national” language. If one observes this statement, it does not only reflect a language in terms of the one that we speak, but also an opinion that we reflect. Hindi, the national language of India was made so after independence for several purposes. It became the vehicle of official information, news (AIR) and a means of speaking to natives of any state. It must have been necessary to do so in a multilingual country as ours to facilitate communication. But because of making Hindi the official national language, numerous linguistic disputes have arisen and through the carrier of a language cultural subjugation has also occurred. This brings us back to if all citizens accept Hindi as the national language. The answer is evidently no and it is this feeling of being dominated by a linguistically more prominent group which is leading people to redefine what is “us” and what is “them” in linguistic contexts. Hence, now Karnataka is being redefined and propagated on the grounds of Kannada speaking populace. Firstly, let us try and look at what makes learning Hindi necessary for one to be the quintessential Indian. Any language, as I previously demonstrated in my assignment (Use of English as a persuasive tool), is not a benign object merely used for accomplishing a task but is in itself, I may call it so, organic and alive. It is not an urn of power but is a power in flux which can be attained by learning that particular language and using it in a way that it restricts the scope of its accessibility. Today Hindi can go so far as to make a historical claim of having been accepted as the “independent India’s” language as opposed to the colonizer’s tongue. Since then, shrouded as the practical language to use throughout India, Hindi has much enjoyed a privilege in education. But there is a marked contrast in the acceptance of Hindi in north India as compared to the south of India. Narrowing down the argument to Karnataka, the recent uproar against emigrants from north-Indian states is only the climax to a chronic woe against Hindi speaking population. I believe the reasons for this are that the Kannadiga people, who now form a minority of Bangalore, are threatened by this majority which eventually undermines their interests and drastically changes the way they live, eat, dress and consume many other products. Also, here peeks nationalism. In fact, it looks like in spite of having merged all these states, owing to a unique culture in each state; one unified nation is quite an idealistic thing. To me a state looks quite an isolated entity when it comes to letting off one’s language, food and way of life to accept the Hindi way of life, dress, food etc brought in by the north-Indian people. And hence this resistance occurs. But the argument takes an interesting turn when we try and substitute the acceptability of English in South India as against Hindi. I do realize that recounting personal experiences and opining may lead to subjectivity and alter a critical vision but here, I dare mention that in the past 10 months of living in Bangalore, from the auto-rickshaw driver to a waiter in a restaurant to classmates in college, I have been able to communicate with all not using Hindi but English. The simple thing I wish to show by this is that the argument that English is spoken and understood by a small amount of educated or elite people of the society. Also, if one may wonder why people of basic services such as waiters, drivers etc may use English is because : a) in South India there are many regional languages as well, b) People speaking Hindi in Bangalore, Karnataka generally seem to possess a basic knowledge of English as well. These are probable reasons that I can think of and they could be completely wrong. But now if one tries to look through the scenario, Hindi appears inimical to what is “ours” to a Kannadiga while English appears to be “or all of us” since colonization occurred across the country. Referring back to the title, the word “dilemma” is extremely important. There is a myriad of confusion which surrounds usage of a language in different contexts which directly affects other’s opinions (favorable/unfavorable) of you and affiliation tendency. Hindi being made the national language does not bail it out of this dilemma, on the contrary makes it a north-Indian’s weapon in some cases, or even the language of the misers, rich, shallow etc (presumptions regarding people who speak it).

Relating to English is the very interesting phenomenon of “nativization of English”. Dating back to pre-independence, all nationalist leaders were generally bilingual, regional + English being the formula. It was in English that the idea of a nation with linguistic homogeneity was developed. People like BankimChandra used the Bengali and English syntax to generate a kind of Indian English which even now distinguished Indian writing in English from the others. The native’s interaction with English like in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (Rumina Sethi) portrays the “Indian flavor” infused into English speech. To elaborate on this flavor, I would like to point out the stylistic differences. The metaphors and the way one’s experiences are written in “Indian” English are an almost perfect translation of one’s thoughts generating in the regional/native language marked by the culture in which it emerges. To come back to the question of Hindi vs. English in terms of literature, since English is used throughout India in education, it has led to an acculturation so significant that it has become a part of the “intellectual make-up” of the educated Indian English writers. Also, attempts to write in English have been made from people across the country while writings in Hindi have been limited to Hindi speaking regions. The evolution of Indian vocabulary in English has also led to its increased acceptance as the medium of writing wherein the necessary can be translated and the authentic words of our own culture can be preserved, catering precisely to the needs of a very “Indian” population after independence. There is a certain absorptive quality in English which has permitted it to become the vehicle of old, historical literature to the modern world keeping intact the “indianisms” attached. But same is not the case for Hindi which in terms of writing has also been treated as a regional language. Perhaps, this is also one domain where English emerges to be nationally accepted in the educated masses of India. Important is not whether a large population in India is literate but to see that English forms a national pattern in its usage. To oral literature, English granted the label of “Indian” and unified distinct cultural patterns. A major credit for such extensive incorporation of English goes to the bilingual intelligentsia existing pre-independence who in Lord Macaulay’s words was “Indian in blood and color but English in taste, opinions, morals and intellect.” This intelligentsia contributed a great deal to the phenomenon of “print capitalism” and English writing in India. It is to this intelligentsia, that comes the idea of a “nation state”.

To conclude, I would like to suggest that due to passionate linguistic struggles between Hindi and other regional languages, Hindi has not been able to acquire the “emotional” and “intellectual” status for the whole nation of “India” thus not making it the essential marker of the “Indian” identity. On the other hand, although quite restricted in its extent, English has been incorporated nationwide to represent oneself in writing or oral expression of thought to the outside world, thus successfully evolving into the lingua franca of the nation with its own share of indianisms.